Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three
Good games become great games in no small part due to good playtesting. In my opinion, playtesting is a critical phase of a game's development, the moment when the designers and the writers both step back and cross their fingers, thinking "Boy, I hope this thing really works." Once the vision of the game has been put into practice, several evolutions can occur.
First, to get the painful part out of the way, the flaws are exposed as the cracks in the game become evident. No game is perfect right off the bat, and playtesting is where the worst bits are noted and flagged for improvement. A monster that's just too tough, a power that is unbalancing for a character to wield, a challenge that is bypassed too easily — these are the kinds of things that a developer, designer, or writer NEEDS TO KNOW in order for the game to improve.
Second, (and my favorite part), playtesting helps showcase what works. Sometimes you can tell, as a designer, where a particular game element (whether it be for "fluff" or mechanics) really knocks it out of the park by the playtesting reports. It's good to take pride in moments such as these, but most importantly, it is good to know where the strengths of your game lie in addition to the weaknesses. This way, the designers and writers know what areas they can emphasize and what needs more work.
Playtesting can teach you a lot about your game, and there have been times that I have found some surprises that, as a writer and designer, I didn't even know about my own work! Having a fresh set of eyes (or, for most playtesting groups, a half-dozen or so pairs of eyes) take a look at your work critically puts the game under scrutiny that one person couldn't possibly manage on his own.
So far, I've written about the benefits of playtesting, but it's very important to note that playtesting is not just fun and games. It's real work, folks. Turning in report after report, redlining the game engine, sometimes meeting challenges way out of line for a typical gaming group — all of these issues are part and parcel of playtesting. It's actually not quite as fun as it may sound.
In fact, I could call this part of the diary, "Why you don't want to be a playtester." Playtesting a game means that sometimes, your characters will die facing a monster that's way too tough for them. It means that you will sometimes go through the same encounter time and time again. It means that you will be asked to write up, in detail, the particular details and issues that crop up over a four-to-six hour gaming session. And the return for all your hard work? An acknowledgement in the book's credit section, plus a healthy happy glow for helping a game become better.
It's not my intention to discourage people from becoming playtesters, only to demonstrate without a doubt that it is not a casual decision. In fact, my advice would be to get together with your entire gaming group to discuss playtesting and make sure everyone is on board with the benefits and the responsibilities thereof.
As a matter of fact, there's someone I know who has a good deal of experience as a playtester. His name is Sean Schoonmaker, and he and his group, "All Records Expunged," were a huge help in making Disciples of the Dark Gods move from good to great. I think I'll ask Sean if he would like to write some more about what being a playtester is like someday and share the results, because he and his group certainly know what they're doing, and they definitely earned their credits in the book. Kudos, Sean, and kudos to "All Records Expunged!"
The Next Step
In one of my previous designer diaries, I promised you a glimpse at what you can find inside Disciples of the Dark Gods. Here's a bit from Chapter 4: Malleus, describing a foul chaos cult known as The Menagerie. This is just a taste of the many lurking horrors awaiting within the covers of this upcoming product…
The Path of the Revelator
The name of the Menagerie is one whispered fearfully by warp-dabblers and those that traffic in forbidden lore; its name is a thing of terror, a dark legend and an enemy to be more feared than even the Holy Inquisition. It is a cult of secret and matchless power that deals in physical corruption and madness, whose touch blights the flesh with the twisting mutation of the warp and whose sorceries can sunder reality and remake it.
The Menagerie, as its name suggests, is a collection of secrets, tangled intrigues, and horrors undreamed off. It is all these things, but it is also a display, a hellish show that reveals to its audience what it claims to be a glorious vision of the true nature of the universe, an unveiling of glories and terrors. Such revelations come with a terrible price to sanity, body, and soul, and few survive their message. Those who do are forever changed.
The cult's plans and workings remain obscure even to those aware of its existence. However, the dreadful suspicion by some within the Ordo Malleus is that the Menagerie's seemingly random plots and corruptions are all working to a vast and singular plan, a plan to undermine reality itself by undermining the sanity and altering the perceptions of humanity to better encompass the "reality" of the warp and bring the barriers between the real and the unreal crashing down. Few that have survived exposure to the Menagerie doubt that the true nature of its plan, as it unfolds, is likely to be something so terrible that no sane mind could grasp it.
Playtesting: How Good Games Become Great
Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three